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Coalition Hopes New Iraqi Army Will Improve Security - 2003-09-17

In Iraq, Coalition officials are hoping security will improve when a new Iraqi army is formed. The first battalion of that new army is due to graduate from training October 4. Their training camp near Kirkush, 90 kilometers northwest of Baghdad.

On a wind-swept artillery field in the Iraqi desert, recruits in the new Iraqi army practice firing their machine guns at targets in the sand under a blazing sun and the sharp eyes of their coalition trainers. Each one fires a dozen rounds or so and moves out to be replaced by a another soldier.

One of the trainers, Australian Army Warrant Officer Glen Close, says this is the familiarization phase of the training.

"This is to get them used to firing the weapon. And as the training progresses, that's when they do their qualification shoots on the weapon," he explained.

Some 750 recruits are in their final weeks of training. They live and work at the Kirkush base, a group of squat cement buildings standing in the desert far from the nearest town. They are the first battalion of the New Iraq Army, as it is called. In some ways, it is much like the old Iraq army, but in others it is vastly different.

Sixty percent of the recruits have had some previous military training. And they are using AK-47 and RPJ automatic weapons that are common in this part of the world because they are more adapted to desert conditions.

But base officials say only enlisted men and officers with the rank of captain or lower are being accepted. Senior officers in the old army are not wanted, they say, because many attained their rank through family or political ties to the Saddam Hussein regime and not by merit. That is one aspect of Iraqi military practice that they are determined to change.

Coalition officers say 60 percent of the recruits are Shi'ite Muslims, 25 percent are Sunni Muslims and the rest are Kurds or from other groups. They say this proportion reflects the ethnic makeup of Iraq.

About 60 of the recruits are officer candidates. Most of these are Shi'ites or Kurds. The old army was dominated by Sunni officers from Saddam Hussein's home region.

Salman Talibani, an officer candidate who spent four years with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that fought against Saddam Hussein, explains why he signed up.

Translator: "He wants a new Iraqi police [army], united, federal, democratic, with the power to keep the security of this country and a free Iraq."

Ali Tawfik Abbas is a young man from the predominantly Shi'ite city of Najaf who was drafted into Saddam Hussein's army as an enlisted man. He says enlisted soldiers were not well fed in the old army. Officers would insult them and when an individual soldier misbehaved the whole unit was punished.

"They used to put them in like a barrel full of water and just have them sit there for hours, overnight," he said.

Ali Tawfik says he is proud to be one of the first soldiers to graduate. He is now an officer candidate and hopes to use his commission to help re-build Iraq.

U.S. Lt. Colonel Ray Cooms says the new Iraqi forces, at first, will be deployed along the borders to stem the influx of foreign fighters and terrorists who are said to be entering Iraq illegally. He says the new army is not being trained to be a tool of repression against the Iraqi people.

"Clearly, this is an army in what is evolving to be a free society. Armies focus on an external threat. We don't perceive the threat to be internal. They're [the new troops] about the defense of Iraq," Lt. Col. Cooms said.

The recruits also receive daily classes in ethics, something they did not get before.

Coalition officials say they plan to train three additional brigades in the next four months. The soldiers chosen to be officers will receive up to five months of additional training. During their training, the officers will be taught how to train their own new recruits.

The commander of Kirkush base, Major-General Paul Eaton, says this method will permit the coalition to raise an army of 27 battalions - or nearly 40,000 soldiers - in one year, an ambitious goal.

"Every Iraqi soldier we train and get into the army represents a greater Iraqi security capability, which is why we are interested in getting this done as quickly as possible, so that Iraq can look to its own army for its own security and pride," he said.

General Eaton adds that the Iraqi forces will also reduce the burden on coalition troops that now are responsible for security in Iraq. He acknowledges that Iraq will probably need a larger military force than the one being raised. And he acknowledges the new army will also need to buy heavy armament, like tanks, artillery and planes.

But he says the coalition is not going to undertake these tasks. Such decisions will be left to the new Iraqi government that is to be formed next year, after a new constitution is drafted and national elections are held.